Picking Winners and Losers

The last time that the IDA (Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency) was considering "assistance" for the B.J. Wholesale Club (plus apartments, plus a bird sanctuary) up by the mall, I caught Mark Finkelstein discussing the project on the radio and laying out pretty clear conservative principles, including that government should not be picking winners and losers.  I was cheering him on until he got to the end of list and went right off the rails.  In spite of his principles, he said that we need to (publicly, financially) support this project in order to snag some low-level retail jobs in the county.

I was shouting at the radio and just about drove off the road.  
 
If this project were really viable, B.J.'s would want to build it without public assistance, and if not, those jobs wouldn't last anyway and the public money would be wasted.
 
Today, Richard Hanna makes the same argument for govenment not picking winners and losers and then goes off the rails, voting against cutting the federal subsidy for NPR as if somehow support for one notably biased media outlet (and a cheerleader for larger government) isn't picking winners.
 
Picking winners is a hallmark of excessive government and it never ends well.
 
The Chevy Volt is a great example.  Outside of its paltry 25-mile all-electric range, this anemic hybrid (falsely billed as an all-electric) gets less gas milage than a conventional Honda and costs twice as much.  To keep Government Motors and the favored auto workers union afloat, the federal government favors the Volt with a $7,500 tax credit.  
 
Even with the tax credit, almost no one is buying the Volt.  No problem for those that can pick winners:
Recently, President Obama selected General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to chair his Economic Advisory Board. GE is awash in windmills waiting to be subsidized so they can provide unreliable, expensive power.
 
Consequently, and soon after his appointment, Immelt announced that GE will buy 50,000 Volts in the next two years, or half the total produced. Assuming the corporation qualifies for the same tax credit, we (you and me) just shelled out $375,000,000 to a company to buy cars that no one else wants so that GM will not tank and produce even more cars that no one wants.
OK, back to the IDA.  The B.J.'s project is back.
 
With a few tweaks, the developer is looking for public money for his project.  IDA financing for a retail store was a bad idea before and it's a bad idea now.  If the developer thinks he has a good project and wants to fund it himself, by all means let it go ahead, and make sure there is no unnecessary regulatory burden in his way.  If the developer doesn't want to take the risk himself, then let it go.
 
Doing anything else is trying to pick winners and losers, and taxpayers will end up holding the bag in the end.